This review was originally published on March 16, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of SXSW 2013.
It would be tempting to credit “Drinking Buddies” as Joe Swanberg’s breakout movie simply because it has a bit more of a technical polish than his earlier projects and a handful of familiar faces in the leading roles, but that would diminish the fact that “Buddies” is a more assured effort from him in spite of its improvised roots, often amusing and surprisingly potent in exploring the uneasy space between friendship and romance.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) is an event organizer at a Chicago brewery, where she and vat brewer Luke ("New Girl"'s Jake Johnson) get along both on and off the clock. Each has their own significant other, though; she’s dating the slightly stuffy Chris (Ron Livingston) while Luke’s in it for the long haul with special ed teacher Jill (Anna Kendrick). When all four agree to a lakeside cabin retreat one weekend, it’s beyond apparent to us that Jill and Chris are better suited to one another, a scenario which would leave Kate and Luke to act on their repressed desires.
A lesser film would go ahead and have Kate and Luke cheat on their partners and contend with the guilt themselves, but the fact that Jill and Chris have a most fleeting dalliance -- the repercussions of which then send Kate and Luke’s purely platonic state into a tailspin -- makes the ensuing interactions all the more organic and fascinating for their unease. Swanberg reportedly maintained his tradition of letting his actors feel their way through an outlined story, but “Buddies” doesn’t suffer from the same meandering habits of his earlier work and benefits from a crack cast of comedians to fill potentially dead air between uncomfortable revelations.
Basically wasted in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” but the saving grace of “Butter,” Wilde’s performance here not only makes the best case yet for her natural comedic chops; it also allows her plenty of subtly dramatic beats with which to convincingly convey the longing lurking beneath Kate’s tomboy exterior. Johnson is similarly gifted at finding the reluctant heart of his own character despite his scruffy look and jokey demeanor, and whenever both are flirting or fighting with one another, their chemistry is frankly off-the-charts. They’re supported well by Kendrick’s guilt-ridden maneuvering, by Livingston’s intentionally vanilla persona, by brewery colleagues played by friend-of-Swanberg Ti West and fiancé-of-Wilde Jason Sudeikis.
For all of its seemingly shaggy plotting, “Drinking Buddies” actually rather deftly acknowledges the Schrodinger-like dilemma of platonic relationships between men and women: there’s no way to determine if it’s one thing or the other without killing the cat. In a film about how hard it is to know what you want, and then to express it, Swanberg gets to the heart of the matters of the heart with disarming doses of both charm and wisdom.
SCORE: 8.2 / 10